Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On the origins of the Beahrs ELP

By David Zilberman

The Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program [ELP] is celebrating its 15 th anniversary. Every summer, we bring about 40 up-and-coming leaders from mostly developing countries to a 3 week intensive training and exchange program. We cover topics such as environmental policy, conflict resolution, management of climate change, impact assessment, and the participants also take tours of California. The program emphasizes peer-to-peer learning and has already established an alumni network of close to 600 members. I have been co-director of the ELP since its inception, and people frequently ask me "how did it start?," and I think it has an interesting story.

composite photo from fields

The idea for a program like the ELP originated from my cousin, Ora Slor, who visited Berkeley 25 years ago with her husband, a visiting professor at UCSF, and I told her that I was working on environmental economics and sustainability. She said that it sounded interesting…but wondered what it was all about. She had some free time, and asked if she could study it. I told her that she could audit classes on natural resource management, environmental policy, and the basics of forestry and sustainable agriculture.

She made a comment that if someone could package these classes into a 2-3 week program, she was sure many would pay to participate. I thought it was a brilliant idea and, of course, that it should start at Berkeley! (You have to realize that among Israelis, like Ora and me, there is a saying that “if you must live in the diaspora, it should be in Berkeley” (not Stanford or New York City).

group photo

About five years later, our College engaged in an effort to build an agricultural university in Russia. The basic idea was to convert a biological research institute that specialized in biological weaponry into a full-fledged university for agriculture. I travelled there with Dick Beahrs and others, and we spoke about what was needed. But it was clear that some faculty needed a crash course on social sciences and the environment, so I suggested this three-week course idea. People bought into it, including some funding agencies, and we interviewed 30 potential participants that seemed incredibly excited, bright and enthusiastic.

I returned to Berkeley and began recruiting faculty to speak about various topics, and soon realized that most were excited to volunteer to give lectures and contribute to the effort. Like everything else that involves Russia, things didn’t work perfectly and instead of 30 people, we only had 9. Some we hadn’t met before (later on I learned that some of their resumes included a stint in the KGB), but altogether the course was a success, the students grasped the technical material well, and we even went to a baseball game (while they didn’t understand the game so well, they enjoyed the refreshments). The quality of the lectures was outstanding, and it was clear that when it comes to geography and natural sciences, the Russians grasp everything well; but when it came to economics they needed some applied training.

So I went to College Ave. and spoke with several shop owners, asking them to speak on how they ran their business, and the students loved it. I remember how impressed I was to learn that the liquor store near us developed a strategy of providing cheap sandwiches to attract people to the store, and these same people bought expensive wine while waiting for their food.

The next year, I decided to repeat the course and placed an ad in the Economist magazine. We received 150 inquiries, and with the help of a grad student, we were able to get 10 to come to Berkeley. Then when we tried it for a third time, we were overwhelmed with the work and decided that to continue this effort, the big challenge was to establish a permanent staff to run it: helping with visas, selection of students, etc. The good thing about Berkeley is that we have enough great faculty that we were able to provide new and innovative content for the program each year.

In the meantime, I developed what was called the Center for Sustainable Resource Development program. The program focuses on payment for ecosystem services and climate change, and one of our participants was none other than Dick Beahrs. Dick was always saying that Berkeley did not do enough to engage with the rest of the world. I also realized that many practitioners in the environmental field could benefit from the extra knowledge and skills that Berkeley had. Dick one day asked me ‘what would you do with a one million dollar gift?’ I suggested developing an environmental leadership program with an alumni network and small grant initiatives as well as satellite centers… and he delivered.

We were very fortunate to have a lot of support, because Berkeley is known to produce self-inflicted hurdles. At the time the College of Natural Resources dean was Gordon Rausser, who was incredibly supportive, as wereother faculty like Vince Resh, Andy Gutiérrez, Alain deJanvry, Jeff Romm and Jerry Siebert. Chancellor Berdahl participated in our opening ceremony and his remarks to the participants, "we will learn from you at least as much as you will learn from us," were prophetic.

The journey that led to the establihment of the ELP would not have been possible without the assistance of our staff. Emery Roe, who was my partner in the pre-ELP days when we brought the Russians to Berkeley, took them to the baseball game and recruited the best faculty to give lectures and drink vodka. Robin Marsh, who was instrumental during the early days of the ELP, helped to build the foundation of the program, establish the certificate, recruit faculty, help with the curriculum, etc. Lesley Corral, who was our first program administrator, was a wonderful artist and designed our t-shirts, and provided warmth and welcome to our participants, dealing with very complex matters. Elna Brockhurst helped to solidify the program and her international experience was an immense asset to the ELP. Sarah Sawyer and Andy Lyons were graduate students that brought new ideas and dynamism to the curriculum and helped to connect the program to Berkeley. Anita Ponce, who is leaving us now to go across the pond to UCSF, was our model administrator, related seamlessly to the students, improved every aspect of the program, and balanced the books. Now the ELP is part of the College’s International & Executive Programs, headed by Mio Katayama-Owens.

Fifteen years is when you really take off and begin life as a budding adult. I believe that the ELP will grow and have a long and prosperous future. We are fortunate that after 15 years the ELP is as vigorous as ever. I am now looking forward to our 25 th anniversary.

ELP at the beach ELP group photo